Family Values: Not What You Think

family valuesI wish Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift hadn’t called their new book Family Values. The title makes it too easy to pass over this important examination of the ethics and morality of family relationships in the mistaken assumption that it’s just another empty contribution to what passes for political debate. I hope the subtitle, The Ethics of the Parent-child Relationship, will catch enough eyes to bring the book to the fore because this work has something important to say, and whether you agree or not, it’s worth a healthy debate.

Brighouse and Swift begin the book by treading some familiar ground, telling us why the family is important and how a strong parent-child relationship benefits both parties. They argue that children have both a need and right to be parented and adults have a need and right to be parents. The authors mostly sidestep the issue of precisely who has the right to be parents, though it’s clear they don’t limit it to biological parents or heterosexual couples.

The arguments on why children have the right to be parented don’t seem controversial: A child’s healthy development depends on intimate relationships with authoritative adults who provide care, nurturing, and guidance. Neither does their argument for parents: That adults who accept the responsibility and fulfill it have the right to the unique joy and challenge of parenting that helps fulfill their lives.

But what’s less likely to win immediate, broad acceptance (or any acceptance in some quarters) is their contention that some parents are claiming rights they are not entitled to. Their argument really gets interesting in chapter five, where they consider the rights of a parent to bestow advantage on a child. They make a sharp distinction between reading to a child, an act aimed at helping the child develop, and paying tuition to an elite private school, an act often aimed at helping a child gain a competitive advantage over other children. The problem is that the second act is designed to disadvantage someone else’s child. The authors contend that while we may have special rights regarding the upbringing of our own children, we also have responsibilities to all children. The book contains more than a few references to the importance of a more level playing field, with government needing to help improve opportunities for children whose parents can’t provide it.

In chapter six, the authors take a different tack in arguing that parents have no right to impose their values on their children. Taking them to church and exposing them to a particular value structure is well and good, but parents cross a line when they fail to allow their children the autonomy to become their own person, a right and need all children are entitled to.

Obviously, I’ve simplified what can be very complex arguments, but my point is that Brighouse and Swift raise some important issues and come to some conclusions that are bound to be controversial, which is exactly why this book is so important and so worthy of considerable thought and debate. The work is scholarly and well documented, with 30 pages of notes and bibliography accompanying the 181-page text. That’s a welcome distinction over the political diatribes that often cloud family value debates. Unfortunately, it also means this is not the easiest of reading. I wish more scholarly works on ethics were more accessible to lay readers, but this is one that is clearly worth the effort. Highly recommended.

Family Values, The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships. By Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2014, 216 pages

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